How legitimate are these stem cell cosmetic products and procedures?
Are they safe and effective?
What kinds of medical conditions are they being used to treat?
I also recently did a post on another area of medicine that is growing involving stem cells: sports medicine. There too much of what is happening is not backed up by published science.
Regardless of the science, for both sports medicine and cosmetics/plastic surgery, there are literally billions of dollars to be made per year and many companies want to tap into that money stream.
One type of reported stem cell-based procedure is for breast reconstruction after cancer, such as what celebrity Suzanne Somers (see photo at left, credit National Enquirer) reportedly recently had performed.
Beyond treatment of cancer patients, the same kind of procedure is being performed for breast augmentation in women who have not had cancer. An interview with one of the pioneers of this medical procedure can be found here and is an interesting read.
What was the situation with Somers and what are the implications of her procedure?
The most recent headline of the National Enquirer screams “Suzanne Somers Stem Cell Boob Job“.
Somers, the actress who played the iconic ditzy blonde, Christmas “Chrissy” Snow, in the 70s sitcom “Three’s Company”, was known back then almost 40 years ago for being a young, sexy actress.
Perhaps it is then no surprise that she is now known to a large extent for her series of books on staying sexy as one ages and her own line of health products that are pitched on her website.
She has millions of fans today just as she did 4 decades ago in her twenties.
A dozen years ago, cancer entered her life. Somers was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatment had side effects that understandably concerned her. As a cancer survivor (prostate) myself, her concerns seem very legitimate to me.
She is quoted on her website:
Like millions of other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, I had to face the numerous daunting decisions about my treatment and recovery. In 2000, I had a lumpectomy and full course of radiation that left me with a withered, nearly pancake breast on the right side (barely a B cup) and my full natural breast on the left side (a D cup)
One possible option that many women choose in that kind of situation is breast reconstruction that can involve an implant. In addition, moving fat from one part of the body to the breast to aid in reconstruction is also an option.
What Somers had done is more cutting-edge and less understood: using abdominal fat stem cells combined with her fat for an autologous transplant to the breast for reconstruction. Somers has a series of videos on another website showing her going through the surgical procedure and during her recovery. I believe it was very gutsy of her to have the procedure taped. Note that some of these videos are graphic and may not be appropriate for all viewers. See image below taken as a screen shot of the video of Somers’ adipose stem cells reportedly being added to her fat prior to transplant into the breast.
After cancer surgery and treatment, breast reconstruction approaches are important medical treatments that can improve self-image and quality of life so the National Enquirer’s “boob job” term is inaccurate and callous in my opinion. Of course their goal is to sell magazines.
What is Somers’ goal?
I think it is difficult to question her decision to have such a treatment and in fact there is a certain courage here in being a pioneering recipient of this treatment, which as best as I can tell is totally legitimate as part of a clinical trial. Perhaps her making herself an example for other women is to help encourage other patients who had breast cancer to consider getting this treatment as well to potentially improve their lives. I think she deserves credit for that.
However, it is crucial to note that the treatment that Somers received is experimental and it remains unknown if the stem cells added to the adipose tissue transplant make any clinically meaningful difference. In theory, one could imagine they might help by growing new healthy tissue, but until further studies are complete it remains unknown if stem cells from adipose have any benefit for breast reconstruction and there are certainly risks involved.
What other conditions are stem cells be used or being considered for use for cosmetic treatment?
There is reason for some optimism that stem cells might actually treat or cure baldness in the future. Many medical treatments such as radiation treatment for cancer as well as medical conditions such as burns or alopecia cause baldness, strongly affecting the self-esteem of millions of patients. In addition, many people simply progressively get balder as they get older, not as the result of a disease.
There is reason for hope that stem cells from the skin that make hair might be widely used in the next 10-20 years for treating or even curing baldness. The research to date on this possible application of stem cell technology seems very promising. Two main approaches are imagined. First, there is the possibility of autologous stem cell therapy for baldness. Second, there is a very real possibility of a drug stimulating the hair follicle stem cells to be more active, producing more hair.
Beyond baldness and breasts, where legitimate studies are underway, stem cells are also currently already being offered for many other cosmetic uses under less than ideal scientific contexts.
If you search “stem cell facelift” on Google, there are more than 300,000 results and there are thousands of videos on Youtube on stem cell facelifts. I’ve included one above as an example (I do not endorse nor comment on that specific physician or his approach). Clearly there are many physicians out there offering autologous fat and/or adipose/mesenchymal stem cell transplants with the goal of improving facial appearance. Whether these consistently work remains unclear, but many people believe in them and apparently hundreds of people are getting them just here in the U.S. per year. That number is likely very soon to grow into the thousands. Are stem cells the new bo-tox?
Generally such procedures, if done by professional physicians, are likely to be fairly safe given their autologous nature, although with any medical procedure there are risks. There is also a reason that nature does not allow adipose tissue from different parts of the body to simply migrate around randomly to other parts.
If you go back to Google and search now for “stem cell cosmetics”, you will see the panoply of things being sold out there to realize the scope of this area and its potentially serious problems. Many cosmetics are being sold that have “stem cell” additives in them that supposedly should make the user look younger. However, there is no logical reason to believe that such an approach for anti-aging creams would actually work. If you go on E-bay and search for “stem cells” you can see almost 2,000 items pop up for sale, mostly anti-aging creams. Some are extremely expensive. Some are described as being based on plant stem cells. There are also stem cell “supplements” to be taken orally to improve one’s health.
Many of these items under the current federal regulations somehow escape regulation by the FDA because they are considered supplements.
Overall, I have to admit that the area of stem cell cosmetics is one that has some promise, but it also has risks and certainly has the potential to take thousands of dollars of people’s money. In my opinion the procedure that Somers had done is different than most of the stem cell cosmetic treatments that we hear about in the sense that it is under scientific/medical study, could actually work, and can reasonably be called an additional therapy for breast cancer. But it certainly also has risks and is likely to be extremely expensive.
One thing is certain more generally.
The area of stem cell cosmetics is on fire and is largely unregulated so far. Until proven safe and effective, cosmetic products or procedures claiming to use stem cells should be viewed as experimental. I personally do not like the idea of being a guinea pig, but when it comes to cosmetic procedures, a surprising number of people are willing to take such risks.